reader request: Marcel Duchamp

CaptureAnother donor request: “Who’s a historical figure you really admire, and why?”

There’s many people I could write about here; it’s always easy for me to come back to Debs. But today I’ll talk about Marcel Duchamp.

You can consult Wikipedia for a biography of his life, Google Images for pictures of his work, the great storehouse of human information for the data you need to know his story. I’m more interested in what Duchamp meant than who he was; Duchamp stood for things. Most notoriously, he was a man firmly of the avant garde. His work still stands as a symbol of what the plastic arts have become. That this symbol is invoked more often as a matter of scorn than of respect would have suited Duchamp fine. The fact that his notorious “Fountain” remains notorious speaks to perhaps the most remarkable aspect of his remarkable artistic career: that his work has, nearly 50 years after his death, maintained its capacity to offend. Of course, the people offended by that urinal today like to imagine that their offense is somehow different than that of the prudes of the past; they think there is some sort of meta distance that separates them from those who respond with religious or conservative offense. But in fact all artistic conservatism is the same. There is no real difference between the horrified provincialism of the local church elders and the studied “that’s not art” rejection of aesthetic populists. It’s why I value poptimism even as I reject it; in their efforts to ridicule the challenging and the experimental, they have helped to restore the capacity of the challenging and the experimental to inflame. They’ve helped make the avant garde dangerous again. For Duchamp, all the art was in the danger.

He also stood for a kind of freedom earned through ruthless discipline and asceticism. Early in his career, like a lot of artists, he was often entirely destitute. Yet he was able to survive, to thrive, thanks to a minimalist lifestyle — spending as little as possible, consuming as little as possible. Duchamp epitomized a strategy for dealing with all of the petty corruptions of modern life, a strategy of needing as little as possible and thus being beholden to as few as possible. Living through the horrors of the early half of the 20th century, like many Duchamp was forced to confront a world in which his ferocious ethical and aesthetic beliefs seemed to make no difference. I often think of him in that way, his perfect willingness to make grand statements on the meaning of art and life and his unwavering commitment to those ideals as a means of combating the pure horrific incomprehension of a world in which the individual soul stands utterly disarmed against war and genocide. Duchamp could not change the world, but he could master himself; he could need little, he could ask for less, and he could retain utterly inviolate control over his own self. Duchamp is a study in self-possession, and it’s that quality that all of us can possess even as someone like myself can only admire his profound artistic talent. You are yours; take that gift seriously. Stand for something in a world of cruelty and indifference.

Here’s a story that speaks to who Duchamp was. I first read about it in a book by Lewis MacAdams. Jackson Pollock’s adult life was pretty much always in crisis, but in one period in particular he was facing really abject poverty, to the point where he might not have been able to keep working. He was, as usual, also on the brink of falling into total alcoholic collapse. Peggy Guggenheim, the great patron of the arts, was considering whether or not she should sponsor him financially, and in so doing, more or less save his life. She decided to send Duchamp to decide if Pollock’s work was worth it. This should have been terrible news for Pollock; he had publicly and loudly disparaged Duchamp’s art, and had even drunkenly accosted him at one point. But Duchamp was not easily rattled. He went and saw Pollock’s work and came back to Peggy Guggenheim and said, “pas mal” — not bad. Guggenheim immediately cut Pollock a very large check.

I’m always moved by this story, for two reasons. First, because Duchamp’s personal integrity and commitment to the value of art and aesthetics trumped his ego. To be able to set aside someone else’s dislike of you, and to like them and their work anyway, to understand that some questions are bigger than the high school bullshit that so often affects adult life…. I find that admirable. To never let someone else’s opinion of you dictate your opinion of them, and to be the kind of person who can listen to someone else insult you and your work and turn around and tell only the truth about what you think of them, is freedom, is self-ownership. And, second, to be such an impressive human being, even in the eyes of someone as formidable as Peggy Guggenheim, that your “not bad” carries that much power, is extraordinary. It comes from her recognition of Duchamp’s genius, of course, and their history as friends and lovers, but also from her understanding of the cold fury of his intellectual life, her belief in his taste, his talent, what he stood for.

Most of us, I’m sorry to say, will never know what it’s like to enjoy Duchamp’s talent or intelligence. But we can all have his integrity. Every human being alive has the capacity of self-possession, to resolve to own themselves and to keep their own counsel. Contemporary life trivializes and degrades; it convinces people that their ethical and artistic commitments are something to feel shame over, to deride as pretense, and too many people are willing participants in this self-injury. Lives like Duchamp’s should remind us: in a world which is indifferent to your existence and immune to your efforts to create change, you can maintain inside of yourself the spirit of refusal, and if you feed it, that fire will burn and burn.